It was in secondary school, at one of those Downtown East chalets that crop up after every exam like MPs before a general election. My friends and I were eating overcooked chicken wings and undercooked bee hoon when an older PRC student—Y—asked if we wanted anything from the supermarket. Anything at all—he was going there to top up the ice.
“Can you get me a Bacardi Breezer?” one of the girls chirped.
When Y returned, there was a massive bag of ice sweating on his shoulder and a 7-eleven plastic bag containing an assortment of colourful bottles. He drew out a lime-green one and plonked it down in front of us. His face wore the smugness of a bona fide adult amongst 15 year-olds.
I—a 15 year-old—was suitably impressed. I had tasted alcohol before, of course. During CNY family gatherings, boozy uncles had tried ‘to make a man of me’ by pushing beers in my face. I took a few sips—mainly to shut them up— but neither the lukewarm Carlsbergs or their halitosis held much appeal. In fact, they made drinking painfully uncool. Alcohol didn’t just taste bitter. It was for middle-aged men with pattern baldness, pregnant bellies, and a seemingly endless list of grievances.
The Bacardi Breezer was different. For the first time, I thought maybe alcohol could be cool; perhaps even glamorous. It’s not just the bright neon-electric colour. Even the name ‘Bacardi’ sounded exotic and sophisticated—like a drink for people in the know. Of course, class chalet was also one of the few occasions when Singaporean teenagers could act without adult purview. This sense of freedom made everything—from Bacardi Breezers to chao tar chicken—taste good.
If marijuana is the gateway to hard drugs, prostitution, and the fall of civilisation, then Bacardi Breezers are surely the alcoholic equivalent of a badly-rolled joint. It was the go-to drink for underage drinkers. It introduced a whole generation to drinking the same way Pokemon Silver baptised them into the joys of gaming some 10 years earlier.
For a brief period in secondary school, Breezers seemed to be everywhere. No East Coast barbecue was complete without them, and chalet was not chalet without at least one person nursing a peach Bacardi over card games, while Jay Chou blasted from someone’s phone in the background.
Bacardi executives may protest their innocence, but I think their audience speaks for itself. No self-respecting adult would be caught dead drinking a Breezer. In fact, they’re rarely seen in the hands of anyone older than 16. By then, even underage drinkers have graduated to beer or vodka.
Much like the training wheels on a bicycle, they’re discarded as soon as they’ve served their purpose: taking your alcohol virginity.
It is for this reason that Bacardi Breezers were—for a time—the most controversial drinks in the world. When they were launched in the United Kingdom in 1993, the idea of a pre-mixed drink was still in its infancy. There were wine coolers and gin and tonics but few carbonated drinks, and nothing quite so sweet or so wildly successful.
Within a few years, there was Hooch, Hard Lemonade, Vodka cruisers, and a whole smorgasbord of hip, coloured poisons. Moral panic quickly followed. The UK media branded them ‘Alcopops’ and blamed every youth-related problem on their popularity. In 1997, Co-op—a UK supermarket with a conscience—banned them entirely. Activists claimed they were ‘designed specifically to appeal to young people who cannot legally buy them’. The UK Health Secretary concurred. He claimed that drinks like Breezer had only one purpose: to get kids hooked on Booze. In response, he increased the tax by 40%.
Across the causeway, Malaysia’s once and future Prime Minister suffered a similar spell of hysteria. BN’s health minister introduced legislation to pull alcopops from KL supermarket shelves.
In Singapore, however, alcopops never quite attained their Antichrist status—despite our penchant for moral panic. Perhaps the early-2000s were a less puritanical time than the present-day. Perhaps teenage binge-drinking isn’t as widespread a problem here. For whatever reason, the PAP did not ban alcopops in the footsteps of Mahathir or Blair, and the 4% ABV pre-teen parties at Downtown East went on and on.
Or at least until our pocket money ran out.
But for all of its early romance and allure, the Breezer disappeared as quickly as it came. Our taste for it seemed to vanish overnight. By the time everyone was in JC or Poly, the lego-coloured bottles had been supplanted by six-packs of Heineken or bottles of hard liquor.
At the class reunions, we no longer nipped at Bacardi’s stems. We chugged from crinkly plastic cups and got properly wasted for the first time.
It was at that point when drinking became a problem for me. Moving from a so-so secondary school into a so-called ‘elite’ JC proved tougher than I had ever imagined. I had poor grades, few friends, and no sense of purpose. After a while, JC felt like a terrible mistake. I didn’t belong to this place, and the school certainly had no use for me at all.
To cope with the stress and loneliness, and as a very childish way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the whole system, I began drinking to excess at every available opportunity. Today, you would probably write, “He was struggling with mental health,” but in the mid-2000s, I was just plainly unhinged. Every night, I enjoyed a vodka-and-whatever nightcap. At class reunions, I ended up puking in a friend’s car, barely conscious enough to stagger home after I-can’t-remember-how many beers.
On one occasion, I drank half a bottle of vodka in about 20 minutes flat whilst my friend sucked down the other half. Needless to say, we both blacked out and woke up in a small ocean of puke, with a very kind uncle standing over me.
I felt guilt and shame and self-loathing, but the experience did not sober me up. Within a few weeks, we were bingeing again. The way we saw it back then, we were fucked-up failures anyway, so why not?
I honestly don’t know. This is beginning to sound like a sponsored post on the dangers of teen drinking but I have a hard time blaming Bacardi for what is clearly my own self-destructive impulses. In fact, I look back on the Bacardi days with nostalgia and fondness. They seemed like the last days of a golden, more innocent time—when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
In my head, the Breezer seemed to encapsulate a particular moment in your adolescence when you simply could not wait to grow up; a yearning for adulthood which is embarrassing and ridiculous and hilariously childish in hindsight.
What on earth were we doing, honestly? Drinking these cloyingly sweet drinks which felt oh-so-adult, but in reality, no grown-up would ever touch?
Their design and colour alone should have been enough to tip us off. The bright colours screamed: “Look at me, Look who’s drinking alcohol!?!” The heavy glass bottles with their crown corks evoked beer, but in flavour, Breezers were as far removed from malt as humanly possible. Looking at them now, you see plainly what they are: a child’s idea of adulthood.
I have not forgotten, however. When I walk past the teenagers barbecuing at Changi or any group dressed in class T-shirts and sat around in a circle, the sticky sweetness comes rushing back, like an embarrassing yet cherished memory. For better or for worse, I feel 15 again.